After copious amounts of research in Byron Bay, we had plumped to take part in a guided tour of Fraser Island departing from the small resort town of Noosa. Noosa itself had been recommended to us as a destination by our friends from Melbourne, so we didn't take much persuasion. Our first night was to be spent in the local 'party hostel', part of the Koala chain of east coast residences. After we had finally managed to negotiate the sizeable queues of fellow backpackers at reception - the receptionists were being far to chatty for such a long line of people, which was causing a degree of consternation for Dunc who is never the best in a queue at any time - we checked into our double room and headed straight for the pool. Later that evening, the time had come to construct ourselves one of our 'basic' travellers dinners. Only problem being that the kitchen itself was easily the most dire we had come across in all our travels. In fact, it actually rivalled our respective first year university kitchens, such was its general nastiness. We frowned and grumbled at the one blunt, greasy knife that was chained to the wall, the blocked sink overflowing with pasta and sweetcorn, and the ineffectual tin opener (also chained to the wall right underneath the dripping boiling water tank), but laboured on in stoic british fashion.
Post dinner, we elected for a happy hour beer and an early night, pausing briefly to swing past reception and have a dig at the state of the communal facilities. Before we could manage this however, we were privvy to a conversation that would have been most amusing were it not so ridiculous. By this point in the evening, the hostel had run out of cutlery/crockery sets for its guests to use, meaning that many people were having to essentially "beg" other guests for use of their kits to make dinner with. A cunning ruse, we thought, designed to get people using the dingy restaurant attached to the hostel. Our suspicions regarding this devious plan were borne out when we heard a fellow guest asking for a cutlery/crockery set before being told there were none. When he responded with a (surprisingly polite) "Well how am i supposed to eat? With my hands?", he was informed that the restaurant had plenty of cutlery/crockery and he was welcome to spend his money there. A spectacular lack of customer service we thought, as we vowed not to spend any time in another Koalas hostel on our trip.
Fortunatly we were due to be picked up bright and early the following morning by our guide to be taken off to the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island for our 3 day 'safari'. To be frank, we had been expecting a rather run of the mill 4x4 vehicle for our trip, and were more than a touch surprised when a huge truck with deep tinted windows rumbled up to the hostel and ground to a halt right in front of us. This monsterous tank-like machine looked as though it could quite comfortably drive right over our residence and we stood impressed as our chipper guide hopped out of the cab and introduced himself in his thick aussie drawl as "Mike". This was going to be fun!
A couple of brief stops to pick up other passengers and we trundled off imposingly to Rainbow Beach, from where we were to pick up the ferry over to Fraser Island. We paused at a local petrol station to grab some last minute supplies and fuel, and were instructed by Mike to go and check out the "wall of shame" on the station notice board. This was an A1 sized piece of corkboard, stacked full of pictures and newspaper clippings of a variety of 4x4 vehicles in various stages of distress. Some were simply stuck in deep rutted sand, some were almost completely submerged under the tide, and yet more were rolled over and upturned with baggage and belongings scattered across the nearby area. Apparently accidents on the island are quite commonplace, and are more often than not caused by "self drives", which is the polite name for groups of (usually pissed) backpackers joint hiring a vehicle then heading straight onto the island without actually having the slightest bit of 4x4 driving experience, then promptly getting into all sorts of bother. Despite the potential comedy value and opportunities for adventerous tales for the people back home, we had already decided that this method was definitely not for us, and our feelings were steadily being reinforced the more we studied the "wall of shame".
With that, we hopped back into "Big red" (as our carriage was affectionatly monikored, despite the fact that it was painted a deep shade of blue.... ironic perhaps?). One 10 minute 'RoRo' ferry trip later, and we disembarked straight into some very deep and soft sand on the beach. Even Big Red was struggling to traverse the landing and it was here that we found out that this route is definitely not recommended for anyone who isn't a competent 4x4 driver. It was, however, highly exhiliarating and a fun way to start our trip. Every time Mike mentioned where we were heading, he made a point to describe it as our "rustic aussie beach house" with seemingly extra emphasis on the "rustic". We were soon to find out why. It was indeed highly 'rustic', although not without its quaint little charms - most definitely more comfortable than camping at any rate - with a cleaner kitchen than a lot of our previous hostels. Every available surface (vertical or horizontal) was covered in messages and graffiti from previous guests raving about how excellent their experiences had been, which added to the character of the place. This was right up our street.
To make matters even more agreeable, we had actually managed to score ourselves the equivalent of an en-suite shower and bathroom, no less! Our group of 16 people was supposed to be divided amongst the 4 dorms in the beach house, but Dunc cannily waited for a bit before noting that no-one seemed to be heading towards the final dorm along. He snuck off in that direction, closely followed by Vickie and within about 10 minutes we realised that no-one else had sussed out that there was in fact only two of us in the final dorm. We had a room to ourselves. Score!
Wasting no time, we jumped back into Big Red and churned our way up the main highway on the island, which is actually a beach. 75 mile beach (so called despite the fact that it is actually only 68 miles long) is what equates to the primary fraser island thoroughfare, and we were greeted with some beautiful scenery on our way north on the island. Not the least of which was our first stop, the stately Maheno shipwreck. This huge vessel ran aground on fraser some 100 years ago on its way to Japan and remained there despite their best efforts to free it. Ten decades of pummeling by the sea and sand (not to mention all the tourists wandering around it) had taken its toll, but the sturdy scottish built ship still looked imposing and like it should be on a picture postcard.
Carrying on up the coast, we eventually arrived at our destination, the lookout point at Indian Head. We had previously been told that the beaches at Fraser, although beautiful, were pretty much unswimmable due to a potentially lethal combination of strong rip currents and large numbers of Tiger Sharks cruising offshore. Apparently, Indian head was renowned as being quite the shark gathering spot, and a great place to spy these magnificant creatures in the surrounding crystal clear waters below. Needless to say, one hot and sweaty climb later, we gazed out over the sublime views and saw...... nothing. Not a bleeding sausage. The sharks had clearly got wind that Dunc was keen as mustard to see them and had gone into hiding. We had to content ourselves with spotting some large manta rays lazily drifting about, and a couple of sea-eagles soaring high on the coastal thermals near the cliff front. All very nice, but still, no sharks.
Being as Dunc had nearly fallen and broken himself on the climb up, primarily due to the unsuitability of his flip-flops (he was still refusing point blank to call them 'thongs'), he decided to climb down barefoot. Whereas initially this seemed a sound plan, he was soon foiled when he reached some rocks that had been exposed to the scorching heat. He was now faced with a painful dilema. Put his flip-flops back on (As Vickie was vigerously suggesting) and risk a broken neck, or keep his feet bare and sacrifice comfort for sure footing. He made his choice, it was barefeet all the way. However, these igneous hot plates could have cooked eggs, and caused Dunc to run/hop/curse down the hillside post-haste, before making a loony tunes style dash to the water before dipping his burning plates of meat in the sea and uttering "ahhhh", while the water smoked and bubbled around him.... maybe this would attract some sharks?
On the way back, our guide decided to liven up the journey for those of us in the front seats (basically Vickie and Dunc) by engaging in a favourite pastime of his, that of Jelly-fish splatting. These squidgy beasts were washed up on the beach in their hundreds, and Mike seemed to take great delight in steering Big Red directly over the largest of them, causing an audible squelch and pursed up faces all round. He attempted to justify this by saying that they were already dead and this helped the ecosystem out by breaking them up and returning their nutrients to the sand (or something). We smelt quite a whiff of bullshit, but were having too much fun to take it up with him.
Soon enough, we pulled up at a small stretch of freshwater known as Eli Creek. This was just one of the several freshwater streams that run from the centre of the island out to the sea, after having been filtered for many decades (200 years in some cases) through the sand. This means that fraser is fortunate to possess some of the clearest and cleanest freshwater in the world, and we enthusiastically made straight for it to cool off in the afternoon heat. Vickie and Dunc waded up the creek, taking time to watch for freshwater eels, spiders and snakes - fraser island is (un)luckily home to 6 of the 10 deadliest snakes on the planet - before winding our way back to the beach for some rugby and sunbathing. It was all rather stressful. We returned to the beach house, pausing briefly to see some beautifully coloured sandstone rocks and, more amusingly, a self drive 4x4 that had been pulled over by the local police for something (they actually have speed limits and speed cameras along the beach), before perching on the veranda and watching the sun lazily sink into the horizon behind us.
Just before dinner, we were treated by a visit from one of our neighbours. However, this little fellow was clearly not going to be bothering us for a cup of sugar. A small Dingo jogged briskly into our camp and gave us a thorough once-over through curious yellow eyes. Mike informed us that this cheepy chappy was well known to the locals, and had actually strolled onto the veranda on a previous trip before swiping a womans camera and legging it back to the bush. Dunc wondered if there was much of a Dingo market for "nearly new electricals on the cheap" but reckoned that they'd struggle too much with the manual focus being as they had no thumbs. The young Dingo continued his investigation of these latest bald pink bipeds to invade his domain, before hopping around the corner to bother the hut next door. Dunc followed him and was treated to a benny hill style comedy sketch as he observed the dog amble around a blind corner in the direction of the huts residents, before dashing back out into the open rapidly pursued by large flying coconuts and calls of "Gerrat of it ya thivin' dingo baaastahd!". Sensing a mild lack of hospitality from these people, the Dingo seemed to give a visible shrug before departing back down a track and into the bush, leaving Dunc watching in stitches. During our time on the island, we saw several of the young Dingo's hungry looking family, and were left in no doubt that we were to leave these hairy little opportunists alone by the large amounts of Dingo warning signs all over the island. Nontheless, to see some of these characterful canines (some of Australias purest strains of wild dog) in their habitat, doing what they do, was a wonderful experience, and far superior to observing them in captivity.
A traditional and volumous aussie barbie was served up for dinner - we were most impressed by the food on this trip and felt ever so slightly smug at not having to cook our own sustenance on a tiny camp stove - and we tucked in with glee, before heaving ourselves off to bed.
As we grabbed some breakfast early the following morning and were preparing to depart, we were greeted by a new member to our party, a dishevelled young mexican chap called Pablo. Slightly surprised at this new addition, we enquired as to where he was the previous day, and were treated to a tragic (but pretty funny) tale of woe. Poor old Pablo had overslept and missed the bus as it departed. His solution to this problem was to pack up his stuff, stick his thumb out and attempt to hitch the distance from Noosa to Rainbow beach (some 2 hours by road). Several long walks and short car rides later, he pulled up into Rainbow beach and made it to the ferry point about 10 minutes after the last ferry had departed for the day. Disaster! Apparently he considered swimming the rest of the way but was strongly advised against it by a local man who told him if the current didn't get him, the tiger sharks would. There was nothing else for the poor little latino but to kip down in the trees near the beach. There he attempted to sleep - all the while being munched on by mosquitos - before getting the first ferry across in the morning and hitching the length of the island to our camp. This was quite a tale, and we listened intently whilst managing to keep our laughter in check at the comedy of errors. Nontheless, fair play to Pablo, he had stuck to his guns and made it to the island.
Oue first destination for the day was central station, where the tourist information is held. Here we learnt all about the history of the island, saw lots of raucous cockatoos, and went on a sticky 2km walk through the island rainforest pausing to look at a range of intimidating looking flora (the scarily titled "strangler fig" held our attention longer than most). Our guide told us all about the different gum trees towering overhead, and Vickie took an instant like to the wonderfully named "scribbly gum" tree - so called because it is literally covered in caterpiller-induced child-like scribbles. We also observed some gargantuan Satinay trees, which take up to 1000 years to mature. These hardwoods are so tough that they were used to construct the suez canal! It wasn't just flora though, as we cowered underneath vast spider webs stretching across the footpaths and "eurghed!" at the sight of a slimy freshwater eel drifting through the nearby creek, before being captivated at the sight of a brilliant blue kingfisher sat resting on a branch just below us.
Now pretty sweaty and desperate for a chance to cool off, we gleefully looked forward to our next stop, which was the paradise perched dune freshwater lake Birrabeen. This was much more difficult to get to than the more popular Lake Mackenzie (although not a problem for us ensconsed as we were in Big Red), is much quieter and rivals its illustrious sibling for sheer natural beauty. This was most definitely an idyllic spot with warm clear freshwater and icing-sugar white sand lined with rainforest. No pictures we took could do this spot justice but safe to say, and Vickie even commented that the water she was swimming in tasted not unlike Evian. High praise indeed. Always one to ruin a moment, Dunc decided to grab the groups boogie board and, after a small amount of goading and "at your own risk of course" comments from our guide, tried to use it as a "skidboard", which essentially involves pushing the board ahead of you in shallow water before leaping onto it and skidding to a slow gracefull halt. However, a combination of the thickness of the board (you can actually buy specialist skidboards apparently, but we were 'customising' a much bigger boogie board) along with Duncs 'ample' frame and natural lack of balance, foiled his effort at the first attempt. As he sprinted after the board and lept onto it, it bit into the sand hard and catapaulted him off its surface and onto his ribs, knocking the wind out of him and leading to a barrage of 'tuts' from a less than sympathetic Vickie.
We had a spot of lunch at the lake, and it wasn't long before we had an uninvited guest. Not a dingo this time, but a 2 foot long lace monitor lizard, whose flicking blue tongue had clearly picked up the scent of the chicken in our sandwiches. This fearless reptile had no qualms about crawling right up to us as we were eating, and seemed to take a particular fancy to Vickie. She had no problems with it wandering over her feet until Mike kindly told her just how hard these things could bite if they got agitated. After that, her feet never left the safety of the bench. We could see the "don't feed the wildlife" signs all around us but had to admit that it was quite tricky resisting the sheer cheekyness of this scaly little thief, as he kept a keen eye on anyone whose sandwich looked less than stable in their hands.
Another freshwater lake beckoned in the afternoon. We chose to visit lake Boomanjin as it was apparently very different to Birrabeen, being a 'red lake'. The redness of the water is caused by the large amount of surrounding tea trees that flank the large lake, and we were curious to see it up close. Although not as immediately stunning as Birrabeen, Boomanjin certainly possessed its own set of charms, and we spent a long and lazy afternoon swimming in the deep red water, and contemplating the skin healing qualities of all that tea tree oil that was in the lake. Feeling wonderfully refreshed, we headed back to camp for dinner, wine and stargazing long into the evening.
Our final day on the island was made up of a trip to one of its more famous sights, the sandblow freshwater Lake Wabby. We were particularly keen to check this one out as it is slowly being engulfed by the large Hammerstone sandblow, and will effectively cease to exist in a few years time. One sweaty and exhausting 2km trek across huge sand-dunes, during which time we felt slightly like a kind of half-arsed Lawrence of Arabia (only in surf shorts and a baseball cap), and we were greeted by the oasis like sight of Lake Wabby. One fun aspect of this lake is that the sandblow has formed up steep dunes on one shore of the lake, which are perfect for the sport of Dune-surfing. This invloves running down the slope before leaping onto a boogie-board and (hopefully) speeding down the sand and into the water. Duncs back was feeling much better now, so he eagerly grabbed the board and clambered up the dune to have a go. Vickie shouted after him that he wasn't allowed to break anything, and as he trekked up the dune, he couldn't help but overhear her dispariging comment to some others in our group that "He thinks he's still a kid, thats his problem". Charming. Undiscouraged by this scorn, he dropped onto the board and skidded down the dune (being slowed down at halfway when he churned through a small sandbar and got a copious faceful, nosefull and eyes full of sand) before plopping into the water dissapointingly slowly. Next time would require a faster run-up but he thought it might not be worth the earache and possible limb damage he'd recieve.
Not to be outdone, Vickie had a go and sat a touch more gracefully on the board before daintily sliding down the slope and into the water at a controlled pace (face completely free of sand). This was fun!
One disconcerting aspect of the Lake was the large amount of "cleaner fish" resident within. These nibbly little monsters seemed to take great pleasure in picking at us while we cooled down in the water, causing a comedic amount of swatting and shouting from various members of our group. Before we headed off, Dunc resolved to trek up to the lookout point, some 1.5km away. Initially Vickie was going to join him, but when we reached a sign telling us that it involved a steep climb, she reacted with a swift "sod that, i'm staying by the lake" before rounding 180 degrees and heading back. Dunc pressed on and was greeted with a quite magnificant view back out over the lake. This majestic sight encompassed the sandunes, lake, rainforest and pacific ocean, all in one sweeping vista. Most definitely worth the climb.
As he returned, he noticed the rest of our group scornfully observing an unofficial new addition to our party. A swarthy latino chap had "procured" our boogie board and was now using it as a tool to crack onto a couple of likely looking tourist ladies. As he sped down the dune into the water, disaster struck. His shades came off in the impact and, completely panic striken, he frantically fished around him to put them back on before resurfacing and offering a large and manly 'thumbs up' to the giggling ladies. Fortunately, it was now time to leave, so Dunc swiftly dispossessed this charmer of his toy, and we headed off on the 2km walk back to the beach, where Big Red and lunch awaited. We had a number of well practiced group pictures in front of the truck before sadly heading back to the mainland.
Back in Noosa
Slightly reluctantly back on the mainland, we had one more night to endure in the Koala backpackers before our transfer to the other side of Noosa the following morning. After dumping our bags and having several showers to 'de-sand' ourselves, we headed for the local supermarket to purchase supplies for the evening. As we perused the shelves, Vickie attempted to gain the attention of a passing pimply teenaged shop assistant to enquire as to the whereabouts of the nearest customer loos. He was clearly in a hurry as, despite her repeated attempts to flag him down, he only stopped once he'd practically floored her as he rushed past. She politely asked where the 'customer bathrooms' were, but only got a confused expression of blankness back. Perhaps this young lad thought that she fancied a bit of a bubble bath to ease the pressures of shopping? Vickie swiftly re-phrased her question and asked where the toilet was. This sparked a frantically stuttering outburst as the clearly hormonal fellow squeaked out some hilariously vague directions whilst waving his arms about at nowhere in particular in his desperation to articulate himself to a 'girl'. Vickie took a couple of steps backwards and Dunc stood agog at this hulking boy with the high pitched voice as he got more and more tangled up underneath his own tongue. Eventually, Vickie interuppted him and said "Don't worry, i'll find them", but this smooth charmer wasn't done yet. Just as he was rounding up his performance, he inadvertantly let out a shelf wobbling belch straight from his gut, right in the middle of a sentence. This odd gastronomical outburst seemed to take him as much by surprise as us, and he scurried of hastily, apologising as he went. Vickie was the picture of composure as she managed to last a full six feet before turning into an aisle and doubling up with laughter. Dunc managed to last half that distance. We giggled about it every time we passed the supermarket.
We transferred to a far superior hostel the following day in nearby Noosaville, even managing to fluke ourselves a free upgrade to an ensuite bathroom courtesy of our friendly check in helper, Northern Carl (who incidentally had a fine ability to talk for a good 45 mins without ever actually saying anything or taking a breath, as well as proudly holding the world record for the number of times he could fit the word 'yeh' into a sentence). We were far happier in this more laid back atmosphere, and felt very chilled out as we ate dinner outside. However, as the sun set and the moon began to rise, we suddenly became aware of some quite astounding activity in the sky above. Thousands upon thousands of large fruit bats began silently flittering over our heads. This was an incredible spectacle and we ignored our dinner and gaped at the sky as the flock of flying rodents just kept coming and coming. Their numbers were countless, and the whole episode lasted a good 20 minutes before they finally thinned out. It felt as though we were privvy to one of natures great phenomena, and that this was the sort of thing that would feature on a wildlife programme. We even began to root for the odd straggling bat that we saw flying backwards or around in circles, and cheered for each one as they eventually righted themselves (usually by bumping into several of their bretheren) and set back off in the correct direction.
We had been looking forward to visiting Steve "Crikey!" Irwin's world renowned Australia Zoo for a long while, and so eagerly sprung out of bed to meet the courtesy bus that would take us there in a little under 2 hours. Unfortunately, spirits began to flag slightly when the rain came down hard for almost the entire journey (we'd also neglected to bring our raincoats with us, and were cursing our lack of foresight). However, this actually proved to be something of a blessing in disguise as when we arrived at the front door, the rain had almost completely stopped and there were virtually no crowds as (less hardy, we puffed) people had clearly been put off from coming by the inclement weather.
It was a fantastic day, and we managed to get up close and personal with those most australian of animals, the Koalas and Kangaroos. Vickie also made a beeline to the kids farm, and spent a long while kooing and cuddling the various bleating and squeaking creatures therin. She took an especial shine to a litter of fortnight old piglets - even Dunc conceded that they were actually incredibly cute - and made some very odd noises as she stroked and tickled them, all the while imploring Dunc to "oooh, look at them.... so cute!". Pretty soon, it was time to check out the business end of the food chain, and we went for a wander around some of the crocodile paddocks. Steve Irwin and his team had caught and rescued every single one of these prehistoric beasts from danger in the wild, and they now lived in pretty much the lap of luxury. His two star attractions were "Agro", a 14 foot bad tempered bundle of scaly agression that has a tendancy to launch itself at Steve any time he sets foot in his enclosure. Even larger, was "Acco", a 16 foot monster that the zoo has had for a number of years. Peering at these magnificant creatures in their enclosures was somewhat akin to looking back 150 million years into a bygone era (for Dunc possibly - Vickie just thought it was like looking at a crocodile...) and we were struck by the sheer size and presence of many of the residents.
We spent lunch in the "Crocoseum" watching the various live animal displays, including Snakes, Birds, Bengal Tigers and the impressive Croc feeding, before spending the remainder of the afternoon checking out the slightly less stately animals in the park such as Dingos and the apparently hyperactive Tasmanian Devils. One of the highlights of the day was regularly bumping into staff members who were going about their daily business with some sort of animal clinging to them. These workers were clutching anything from Koalas to baby alligators or even walking the resident cheetahs on a lead. Overall, the conditions at the zoo were what really made a lasting impression on us, and the infectious passion that the Irwin family have for conservation really began to rub off by the end of the day.
Back in Noosa
It was time to hit the beach and top up our tans, and we spent the majority on the following day doing just that, thinking ourselves to be very brave every time we ventured into the 'shark and jellyfish infested' sea to cool off. We overheard a classic sample of aussie life as we dried off at the end of the day. A middle aged man had clearly been given duties to look after his grandaughter and a gaggle of 10 year old girls for a day trip to the beach. As he slowly gathered them up, he successfully negotiated them away from the beach with the promise of ice cream, leading to cheers all round. Then came the kicker. He loudly announced that "I want to go to the pub for a beer, and you're not supposed to take ice creams in there, so you'll have to hide them all behind your hands when we go in". This led to in-depth conversations between the girls as to the best ice cream smuggling techniques as granddad smugly packed up their things and led them from the beach, passing a sniggering Dunc and Vickie on his way. 'Drink like an australian, think like an australian' indeed.
We had not really been taking much excercise of late, so were pretty proud of ourselves when we rose early the following morning, and struck out with a purpose to explore some of Noosas nearby national park on foot. We set out along the coastal track, and after completeting the 5.5km circuit, we both concluded that our choice of footwear (flip flops again) was more than a little unsuitable for the rugged, muddy path. As if that wasn't enough, we ended up grumpily flip-flopping another 5km uphill into town to run some errands. Fortunately one of these was sorting out our transport into the red centre for our trip to Ayers Rock in a couple of weeks time, which lifted our spirits no end for the walk back. Back at the hostel, after staring at the nightly bat invasion again, Vickie returned from the Internet room with a wide grin on her face and a crisp $5 note in her palm that she'd just found on the floor. Beer money! We treated ourselves to a jug of finest VB, and raised our glasses to a highly productive day all round.
Although we were fans of Noosa, time was pressing on and we needed to carry on up the coast. It was time to go back to Rainbow beach. Upon arrival (that is, after another irritating coach trip sat near to a coughing spluttering mess of germs a couple of rows in front), we checked in and were delighted to find that, due to some confusion over our arrival date and room (a cerebrally challanged staff member had us arriving and staying in completely the wrong place), we were swiftly upgraded to our own 'suite' complete with ensuite bathroom, fridge and, most impressively of all, our own TV! And it was the Australian Open week as well!
Feeling in bouncy mood, we headed out for supplies, and decided to award our good fortune with a carton of "goon". At this point we should probably explain. "Goon" is a glasweigen colloquialism for cheap wine that has spread along the backpacker trail. We found a carton of Sunnyvale white wine which was a bargain at $10 (about 4 pounds) for 4litres! We were initally going to go for the dry white (like it mattered) but the chap at the counter pushed us towards the medium with the note that "Its about the best of them really, enjoy it as much as you can". We smuggled it into the hostel, popped it in the fridge and settled in to get drunk during the day whilst watching the tennis. Hobo-tastic.